1976 Dutch Grand Prix race report

James Hunt (McLaren) at the 1976 Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort.

James Hunt won his fourth race of the season at Zandvoort

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Hunt wins through

Zandvoort August 29th

There seemed to be a happy atmosphere pervading the paddock on Friday morning as cars were prepared for practice. Everyone had enjoyed the previous Grand Prix in Austria, a spirit of “racing” was about the place rather than “professionalism”,, the Scuderia Ferrari were back, albeit with only one entry at the moment, but news was that Niki Lauda was home and convalescing well. While the top teams were unchanged, apart from McLaren and Shadow having new designs to try, there were some changes among the lesser teams. Of great interest was the fact that Jacky Ickx was to drive the works Ensign, so now we should know once and for all whether his demise in Formula One has been all his own fault or mostly the un-competitive cars he has driven. The Ensign was unchanged and we had the yard-stick of Amon’s performances with the car and those of Hans Binder and Patrick Neve. The Surtees for Pescarolo had arrived on a hired lorry as its own transporter had broken down in Belgium, the works Surtees of Brett Lunger was to be driven by Formula 3 driver Conny Anderson and Rolf Stommelen was to drive Edwards’ Hesketh. John Watson was feeling cold about the chin having shaved off his beard after his Austrian GP victory and the enthusiastic Australian Larry Perkins was back with the Dutch-owned Boro-Ensign. Although Ferrari was back no one seemed to rate Regazzoni as much in the way of opposition, feeling that he would be lost without the help and guidance of Lauda.


At the regulation hour of 10 am the track was opened and cars began to roar off round the sand-dunes, no one having any qualms about the circuit or its condition as no changes had been made since last year, which made a refreshing change. As the first cars completed their second lap the heavens opened with alarming abruptness and the rain poured down, just as if “someone-up-there” objected to the noise and clamour. Whatever it was it was most effective, for everyone stopped and huddled in the pits for shelter, apart from the brave spectators who had no option but to get wet. Regazzoni was the first one to fit wet-weather tyres and go out again, but almost as quickly as the rain had come the sun came out and within minutes everything was dry and back to normal. Now everyone was really stirred into action in case the rain came back, and there was an almighty thrash for the remainder of the morning session. It was imperative to get in some quick laps as soon as possible and thus stake a claim on the starting grid, for if the weather was going to play about it might be the grid-deciding session right now.

It was no great surprise that it was John Watson and the Penske PC4 that was setting the pace, for both driver and team were reacting splendidly to the taste of success. Whereas some drivers and teams can have a win and show no reaction or desire to do it again, others become really fired-up and get on a winning streak. It is impossible to analyse why, it is just that some do and some don’t, in the same way that some drivers and teams are natural winners, while others look out of place if they win. Watson was in a class of his own with a best time of 1 min. 21.94 secs, which was a long way off the lap record of 1 min. 20.31 secs, set up by Peterson in a Lotus 72 in 1973 and even further from the fastest practice lap of 1 min. 18.31 secs. set up by Lauda (Ferrari) in 1974. The next best to Watson was Laffite with the Ligier-Matra V12 with 1 min. 22.06 secs, and in third place was Hunt with 1 min. 22.18 secs. Naturally there were lots of excuses as to why everyone was not as fast as Watson, but we’ve heard most of them before and many of them too often. Some drivers can only drive as well as their car is good, others can overcome the natural instincts of their car and make it do what they want to do. Some spend all their time fiddling with adjustments hoping to achieve some magic setting that will make up for their personal driving deficiency. Some, like Reutemann, had a legitimate excuse when his engine blew up, forcing him to use the spare Brabham-Alfa Romeo. Tom Pryce was as happy with the new Shadow as Mass was despondent with the new McLaren. The Welshman knew what he wanted to do and was delighted to find the DN8 allowed him to do it, while the German was expecting the M26 to improve his driving ability to that of his teammate, who was resting his Austrian GP car and using his other one.

In the afternoon it was still warm and dry with the sun shining and the excitement continued. Hunt was getting into his stride and going through bunches of slower cars like a local among the tourists. Nilsson petered to a stop with electrical problems and while the Lotus Mechanics were working on the car by the side of the track Pesenti-Rossi spun his Tyrrell 007 and stopped a few feet away. The Lotus lads pushed the blue and orange Tyrrell off the track and down into the sand-dunes and then got on with their work, while the Italian driver went off to gel help to extricate his car. After a slow start in the morning 1ckx was now beginning to show good form and sat behind Regazzoni for a lap or two, while the Ferrari driver was very conscious of being all alone with everyone against him. The six-wheeled Tyrrells were not shining too well, showing a tendency to lock the middle wheels under heavy braking, the tiny tyres making tiny puffs of blue smoke. Pryce stopped with the new Shadow and a mechanic with an armful of exhaust pipes showed what the trouble was; a pipe had broken off at the manifold flange. Watson had gone quicker still, but Hunt had passed him, while Brambilla had joined the elite group who had lapped in under 1 min 22 sec. There were plenty of people lapping between 1 min. 22 secs and 1 min. 23 sec. and anything over that was hardly worth worrying about on the road to fame and fortune.

Ronnie Peterson (March) at the 1976 DUtch Grand Prix, Zandvoort.

March’s Ronnie Peterson was the fastest qualifier

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On Saturday morning the Ecclestone/Mosley rule-book was revised by popular acclaim and the fatuous arrangement of one-and-a-half hours for full-tank and race-tyre testing was put off until the afternoon, so that everyone could carry on from Friday at the same tempo. This meant that from 10 am to 11 am was the last chance for grid-positions to be established and though conditions were dry, there was a strong wind blowing and the skies looked unsettled. Jocken Mass was still trying to come to grips with the new McLaren, the works Surtees of Jones had aluminium ducts alongside the cockpit to try and encourage more air to go to the engine, Peterson was in the newer of the two March cars earmarked for him, Pryce was really enjoying himself in the new Shadow and Reutemann was back in his original Brabham with a new Alfa Romeo engine installed. There was a lot of pressing on, even from those near the back and both Merzario and Perkins had spins leaving the Trazan hairpin, the Australian doing a beautiful text-book job of declutching at precisely the right moment, to avoid stalling the engine, keeping his sense of direction and driving off as soon as the nose swung the full 360 degrees and was pointing the right way up the course. Nilsson was making up for lost time and chopped across the front of Mass in an audacious overtaking movement that left the German a bit breathless. Andretti had settled to use the earlier of the Lotus cars, 77/R1, as it felt better through the fast twitchy corners and Brambilla was out in his orange March with a new Cosworth engine installed. Watson was not as fast as he had been and a whole bunch of drivers got down into the 1 min. 21 sec. bracket, these being Regazzoni, Scheckter, Brambilla, Peterson, Hunt, Pryce, and Andretti, with Watson being in with them on his Friday times. There was a lot of hard charging going on and not very much wittering and by 11 am a lot of people were very breathless and sweaty, which is always good to see. That Peterson was really back on form could be seen from his pole position time of 1 min. 21.31 secs. and the sweat that soaked through his driving overalls all down his back was a good old-fashioned sign of a driver who had been having a real go.

Everything and everyone had been wound up pretty tight during this hour, and now it was all finished and the grid situation was settled; everyone relaxed and became quite human. The “testing” hour-and-a-half in the afternoon was exactly that, the pressure was off and the tension was gone and people actually ran full-tank tests and scrubbed tyres. Those who had spare cars tried them out, just to make sure everything was working correctly, Alan Jones tried the second works Surtees to see if there was anything wrong with it, and routine engine changes that were started as soon as the morning session finished were completed and the cars given a run.

In the midst of all the afternoon activity Peterson was out in his spare March, 761/3-3 and thought he would outbrake and chop across the front of Perkins at the end of the main straight, but the Ensign driver didn’t reckon on being bullied with the result that they collided and spun off the road. The Boro-Ensign was wheeled back to the pits more or less undamaged but the March had to be retrieved by a breakdown truck! Not long after this there was another flurry of tyre smoke and sand and Jochen Mass went off into the catch-fencing. The outer universal joint on the right-hand drive-shaft had split open the fixed yoke, and the rear brakes being inboard, as is standard practice on Hewland gearboxes these days, meant that Mass only had three tyres absorbing braking forces, and they weren’t enough. The damage was slight, but in the remaining minutes he went out in Hunt’s spare car, his own being in the paddock.

The whole scene took on some semblance of common sense and logic and the afternoon ended on a pleasant and relaxed note. There was the usual bitching from certain “professionals” at the game, especially when it was seen that Regazzoni was on the third row of the grid. Claims were made that Ferrari had used some non-standard tyres, the “standard” being those that Goodyear decreed were correct for Zandvoort. To see the “spivs” and “wheeler dealers” of the Formula One firmament ticking about Ferrari having broken “a gentleman’s agreement” was to see the face of Formula One at its brightest and best.

More important was the fact that Peterson was on pole position with Hunt alongside him, Tom Pryce was third fastest with Watson alongside him and Ickx was in the sixth row with the Ensign, proving that he can still drive given the right machinery and indicating that the Wiliams/Hesketh is as bad as it appears to be. Stommelen on the back row with a Hesketh 308 made Hunt’s victory last year with a similar car seem all the more impressive for the driver, and the Dutch driver Hajye had five cars behind him, which wasn’t bad for a first go in a Formula One car. As only 26 starters were allowed, the slowest was a non-starter, and this was Pesenti-Rossi with the Tyrrell 007.


Ronnie Peterson leads the field down to Turn One at the start of the 1976 Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort.

Peterson takes the lead on Lap 1

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Local bye-laws forbid noise and disturbances on Sunday mornings so as the 65,000 spectators filled the stands and covered the sand-dunes, they were entertained by mild forms of entertainment that caused very little upset. At 1 pm all hell broke loose as the 26 starters roared away on a 15-minute test-session. Peterson’s March did not sound too healthy but a change of ignition unit seemed to cure the misfire and everyone seemed fit and ready, the Brabham-Alfa Romeo chaps-squeezing every last drop of petrol into the tanks as they were dubious about their fuel consumption. The 75 lap race was due to start at 2 pm and from the pits everyone drove round the circuit to the starting-grid and then with all the ceremony and “count-down” of a proper start the whole field went off on another lap, this time in formation. They arrived back at the start all set to go and as soon as everyone was in position (no dummy-grid line-up!), the starting light flashed on and they were away. All except Stuck got away splendidly and in the rush to the first corner Pryce got elbowed back by all and sundry. Peterson led from Watson and Hunt, followed by Andretti, but Pryce had recovered himself and was in fifth place. Stuck was wheeled into the pits with an inoperative clutch and as the race ended the opening lap there was a March in the lead, another in midfield (Brambilla) and one in the pits driving off with a jack hooked up under the back of the gearbox. If nothing else March provide entertainment.

For four laps Peterson led Watson, Hunt and Andretti, but the beardless Ulsterman was not going to play a waiting game. As they finished lap 5 the Penske was really pushing the March, and at the end of lap 7 Watson outbraked Peterson at the end of the straight and got the lead but was going too fast to take the normal line round the Tarzan hairpin. In a superb piece of knife-edge balancing Watson held the Penske all the way round the outside edge of the track, where lesser men would have spun off. This let Hunt through on the inside and when Watson was gathered together again he was third! After only two laps Regazzoni took fifth place from Pryce and virtually unnoticed Mezario had slid harmlessly off the track on lap 6. At 10 laps Anderson’s Cosworth engine in the second works Surtecs blew up and next time around Nilsson got on the spilt oil and went off into the sand, everyone else managing to see the oil. Reutemann came in the pits to retire his Brabham-Alfa Romeo next time round, the reason being an hydraulic leak from the clutch operating mechanism. With little fuss Regazzoni had passed Andretti on lap 8 so that at 11 laps the order was Peterson (March), Hunt (McLaren), Watson (Penske), Regazzoni (Ferrari), Andretti (Lotus), Pryce (Shadow), Scheckter (Tyrrell), Pace (Brabham), Brambilla (March), Depailler (Tyrrell), Mass (McLaren), Ickx (Ensign), Perkins (Ensign) and Laffite (Ligier) with the rest straggling along. The Ligier had had a slight collision with Depailler’s Tyrrell and the French car had suffered slightly bent steering, but there was nothing Laffite could do about it.

Tyrell's Patrick Depailler leads a train of cars, 1976 Dutc Grand Prix, Zandvoort.

Tyrell’s Patrick Depailler leads a train of cars

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By lap 12 Peterson’s race in the lead was over, Something technical was affecting the March like the front tyres were overheating, the brakes were fading or the handling was deteriorating, or possibly it was just that Peterson was getting out of breath. Hunt went by into the lead with ease and Watson was all lined up to take second place, which he did next time round. Hajye stopped to change a front tyre on the Hexagon Penske PC3 after 13 laps and on the next lap Scheckter was all set to elbow Pryce and the new Shadow back yet another place. Stuck dropped out when his Cosworth engine failed and to 20 laps all seemed settled. While it may have been settled in spectators minds it certainly was not settled in the mind of John Watson in second place. He was steadily whittling away the gap to the McLaren, the two cars pulling out a gap on Regazzoni’s Ferrari. At the end of 26 laps Watson came down the straight so close to the McLaren’s rear that it looked like an 8-wheeled car! He pulled out as they reached the braking area and side-by-side they stood on everything from maximum speed. Watson was on the outside and he sat it out with Hunt all round the long 180-degree turn in brilliant fashion, but could not make a yard on the McLaren and had to drop in behind again as they finished the corner. There were two laps respite and then he was at it again, but Hunt refused to give an inch. It was like two boxers trading blow-for-blow. Another lap for a breather and then he was at it again, but still Hunt’s judgment was faultless. He only had to overbrake a fraction or run slightly wide and Watson would have been by, for he was really forcing the pace and trying all he knew to worry Hunt into an in infinitesimal error, but it never came. When they started lapping slower cars he tried other tactics but Hunt was master of the whole scene, and wasted no time getting by slower cars.

Back in mid-field Ickx was really getting into the swing of things with the red Ensign and he passed Mass, then Depailler, then Pace, and finally Brambilla, which took him up to seventh place, and all this between laps 17 and 45. Actions have always spoken louder than words, and Jacky Ickx was indulging in some action. It took the leaders a whole lap to get by Jarier, when they came up behind the Shadow, but they finally managed it and with a clear track ahead of them they were at it again, trading blow for blow. As they ended lap 40 we had the 8-wheeler act again and the side-by-side cornering again, and a repeat on the next lap, but it was still absolute dead-lock. Hunt was not going to be flustered and everytime he made quite sure that Watson would have to get alongside on the left, thus putting himself on the outside of the corner. No doubt the Ulsterman would have loved to have got alongside on the right of the McLaren, but short of going down the pit lane there was never any room, Hunt saw to that very effectively. A couple of laps respite and then Watson had another go. Surely Hunt must weaken from the continual attacks, but no. Ending lap 46 they were side by-side again, and equally close at the end of lap 47 and then it was all over. Instead of pulling out alongside the McLaren, the Penske slowed dramatically and pulled off on the right of the track, the Hewland gearbox had failed and one of the best dices we have seen for a long time came to an end. A very relieved Hunt continued on alone, while the unhappy Watson walked back to the pits, his only consolation being the fastest lap. He was everyone’s hero for motor racing could do with some more people with fire in their belly like John Watson.

James Hunt (McLaren) stands on the podium at the 1976 Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort.

Hunt stands on the podium

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Unnoticed in all the excitement Fittipaldi had retired his brother’s car with an electrical fault, and Perkins had spun off into the catch fences in a cloud of sand due to a moment’s inattention on the fast right-hand bend leading onto the main straight. Hunt now had a fairly comfortable lead over Regazzoni and could relax slightly for the first time. Peterson was still ahead of Andretti, now holding third place and it didn’t look as if the USAC driver was going to cause any trouble. Pryce had repassed Scheckter, and the rest were a long way behind. Pace’s Alfa Romeo engine was losing oil and Peterson’s Cosworth was about to blow up. At the end of 52 laps the Swede coasted into the pits and out of the race with no oil pressure and one lap later Pace did likewise, while on the same lap the Matra V12 engine in the Ligier expired. The whole affair seemed to have fallen apart and in comparison with what had gone before it seemed monotonous to watch Hunt reel off the laps. With 10 laps to go Andretti began pressing Regazzoni, who in turn began to close on Hunt. The McLaren had never had an overwhelming lead, but it had seemed secure, but now it was a mere 4 seconds and seemed to be dwindling. While this last minute surprise was being enacted Ickx’s splendid run ended abruptly with a total electrical failure on the Ensign and he forfeited a secure sixth place. With five laps to go Regazzoni was closing fast on the McLaren and Hunt was having to weave through back-markers, which was worrying. As they started the last lap Hunt nipped by Alan Jones, who side-stepped out of the way, and them came back right in front of the Ferrari. Regazzoni was held up, shaking his fist angrily, but it was all too late and Hunt scuttled across the line with the furious Ferrari driver a mere two-tenths of a second behind. It was one race that Hunt was very relieved to see finish. Andretti finished a strong third and Pryce pleased the Shadow management with his fourth place with the new car. A despondent Jochen Mass with the new McLaren finished ninth, having dropped a place when he had an inadvertent spin.—D.S.J.